British and Irish Lions watch: Who impressed and who flopped on the final Six Nations weekend
The final weekend of the Six Nations delivered the usual drama (with an extra 20 minutes added in this time for good measure). But there was an added spice to the tournament this year, and British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland would have learned a lot about his potential picks from the three concluding games – writes Tom Bennett.
Good week for
THE WHOLE IRELAND TEAM
To a man Ireland were sensational against England in Dublin, shutting down the Six Nations Champions with a display that many of the players needed to protect Lions places that had become rather fragile from the sub-standard performances against Scotland and Wales. It’s hard to single out any individuals from such a brilliant team effort, but if pushed these were the real stand-outs:
The big Irish ball-carrier showed why he should be nailed on for squad pick with a barnstorming display that far exceeded anything offered by, one of his rivals for the No. 6 shirt, James Haskell. The fact that he delivered such an influential performance from 8 was further evidence that he’ll be very much in Gatland’s plans.
The 13 shirt is up for grabs and Ireland’s talented young outside centre put his hand up in a big way. It would be a surprise if both thirteens on show in Dublin didn’t go with the squad after this performance by the Leinster starlet, who has lived up to his billing as the nation’s new hope in a quiet but impressive fashion.
The competition for places in the Lions back-row is fierce, but the Munster flanker took the one chance he got in the tournament in a big way, showing exactly why he’s a big option for Gatland. Ferocious at the breakdown, useful at the lineout, happy to play his role as a squad player – O’Mahony seems like the archetypal tourist.
THE IRISH FRONT ROW
The scrum specialists seen at Dublin will likely make up the core of the front-row picks, but Ireland’s heavyweights made a big statement with their rock-solid performance. Tadhg Furlong is a star in the making, but such is the quality of the Irish front-three that you could make a strong case for all three starting the first test in Auckland.
Scotland's fly-half may well have scuppered his Lions chances against England, but he made sure to remind Gatland of his qualities with an eye-catching game against Italy. Russell's hopes of making the Tour probably hinge on whether the selectors want Farrell as purely a 12 or not. If they do then there could be space for an extra 10.
The England lock had a remarkable Six Nations. Even in a losing effort against Ireland it was noticeable how effective Launchbury was, putting in incredible amounts of work and keeping his cool while those around him didn't. If he misses out on the squad it would be unjust and he's given himself a sniff for a test spot.
Bad week for
THE WALES TEAM
Gatland would have been hoping for his usual stalwarts to have a good tournament and give him a reliable base to the squad. But a disjointed Wales showed in France why they should have nowhere near as heavy a presence as they did four years ago. The forwards lack the necessary power to trouble the All Blacks, while the backs don't possess enough creativity. There are of course exceptions (Alun-Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Rhys Webb, Liam Williams), but overall the Welsh squad did their Lions credentials more harm than good over the course of the last two months.
The rejuvenation of James Haskell has been one of the surprises of England's unbeaten run, but the flanker will be sweating over a place on the Lions plane after being overshadowed by all three of the Irish back-row forwards in Dublin. Gatland’s likely to want a fetcher at 7, so Haskell is bidding for 6 where the competition is fierce.
It’s hard on Heaslip, but the injury in the warm-up that he suffered in Dublin could be the final nail in his Lions coffin. Such was the quality of the Ireland back-row in his absence, such was the impact of CJ Stander at 8, and such is the quality of Billy Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau ahead of him, that Heaslip will struggle to make the squad.
England’s full-back was never likely to make the cut, but he certainly won’t now. The Quins 15 bookended his country’s loss in Ireland with big errors, showing a lack of reliability that was his one real selling point. The list of preferable full-backs is lengthening and Brown best start preparing for summer trip to Argentina with the England reserves instead, where he will have some work to do to protect his own position as England's first-choice full-back.
Very little has gone wrong for the Saracens star, who has excelled for both club and country in his already illustrious career. But Saturday was probably the low point of Itoje’s time in national colours and cast the first shadow over his claim for a starting Lions spot. A lack of composure under pressure cost his team on a couple of occasions and the 22-year-old struggled enough against the Irish loose forwards to show why he’s more a lock than a 6. This being said, he’s still guaranteed a place in the squad and should be in the Test 23 at the very least.